All week we’ve been following the saga in Ukraine, at first with the Chabad Shluchim eager to try and stay with their communities which they are so tied and dedicated to and have built up all these years, and in the course of one week the tide dramatically shifted to get as many people away from the dangerous areas in the conflict… watching all this from afar, the uprooted and destroyed communities, families leaving their homes with a suitcase, the crumbling of institutions – such devastation…
In addition to the big overall picture, we know individuals and families there. Rabbis we went to yeshiva with, classmates, extended family – Raizy’s sisters have sister-in-laws there (who escaped in the last minute) who worked all these years building these communities, and now doing whatever possible to send people and themselves away…
Just think of what it means to leave a home full of furniture, full of books and photos and memories, all the random and necessary things one accumulates over the years, and to leave that home behind – with a couple of suitcases. Then multiply that by leaving entire synagogues, Jewish schools, community centers, soup-kitchens, day-camp facilities, mikvahs, cemeteries, holy sites and more – all that behind, left to an unknown future.
So all this was on our minds and hearts all week.
Thursday night is busy, we had lots going on. At 10pm each Thursday, we Chabad on Campus Shluchim/Rabbis have a Zoom class – with Rabbi Asher Yaras of the Chabad at University of Rochester – to study one of the Rebbe’s sichot (as part of “Project Lekutei Sichot” – an ongoing global project with many resources to cover all the Rebbe’s Sichot published in the 40 volumes of Lekutei Sichot). But I couldn’t get on at 10pm this week.
By 10:55pm things calmed down here, and I popped into the Zoom class hoping to get the tail-end of the Sicha study. The words and message I heard there at that moment, were just what I needed to hear! It doesn’t solve their many problems, it’s not a magic-bullet, but they are uplifting meaningful thoughts to consider and apply in a time like this.
Basically, the Rebbe (in LKS Vol 16, Pekudei 3 – based on talks of Pekudei 1964 and 1967) is focused on the last few verses closing out (and climaxing!) the Book of Shemot/Exodus. The last half of this Book is about the building of the Mishkan (mobile Dessert Tabernacle) starting out with the donations and design down to the actual & practical construction. So you’d think the Book would end/climax with G-d’s glory resting on the Mishkan. Indeed, that’s the theme in the chapter before the end.
But the last few verses at the very end of the Book change course! It speaks of when the Cloud of Glory (the symbol/physical manifestation of G-d’s Presence) lifts away from the Mishkan, when the Mishkan is dismantled and packed away, and the Jews set out to journey onward. The Rebbe asks, why end of the Book climaxing all this Mishkan effort with verses about the Mishkan dismantled, inoperative, with the Cloud of G-d’s Glory lifted away?
There’s a important message here, says the Rebbe. Our connection to G-d doesn’t disappear as the cloud does, the connection remains vibrant even without a working Mishkan. Our mission is even stronger in moments like these. The wording is not that the Cloud leaves or disappears, but “when the Cloud lifts upward” our connection to G-d and dedication to our mission can be deepest and most profound when G-dliness is not apparent and spiritual amenities are not accessible and available. This is the climax of the Book of Shemot, insists the Rebbe, this is the climax of the Mishkan, the inner-core dedication that persists and continues even when it isn’t built-up and present.
Rabbi Asher Yaras was leading the class online – and he paused to point out the incredible relevance to the current situation in Ukraine. Here you have people who have their Mishkan dismantled, everything is (fallen) apart, and the Cloud of Glory is nowhere to be found. Yet, all is not lost, the mission continues, the journey moves on, and in some way (despite the sadness, loss, destruction etc) the connection is deeper than ever.
Rabbi Yaras talked about a recent video clip from this week going around online of a Rabbi Sholom Gopin helping another Jew put on Tefillin, at one of the refugee stations near the border of Ukraine. There’s nothing highly unusual about the clip itself, Lubavitcher do this all the time, all around the world. But wait for the backstory:
Up until 2014, this Rabbi Gopin was a Shliach in Lugansk, Ukraine. He and his wife built a flourishing active community, restored the synagogue, built a school, mikvahs and more. And then Russia attacked in 2014, much was destroyed and the community disbanded and moved west. He had no community left to rebuild again. He lost his home and everything there. But he was not deterred, and was most determined to do the Rebbe’s Shlichus, and so he and his wife and family (first moved back to Israel, and then) found another community in Ukraine, and since 2014 has been rebuilding once again, meeting people, engaging them, creating community, organizations, institutions… and here we are in 2022. Rabbi Gopin (and Rabbi Vishedsky and other like them) are forced to flee again from Russian aggression, and again face the loss of their homes, communities and built-up institutions…
It would be so understandable to find him desolate, broken, depressed. To go through this twice!? All this lived through with his family, friends, community!? Instead we find him – his Mishkan dismantled, the Cloud of Glory gone – helping another Jew put on Tefillin, continuing the mission, deepening the connection, regardless of circumstance, no matter the loss –
– as the Rebbe describes the climax, the ultimate, of the Book of Exodus.
As dramatic and extreme as the story and message above, there can be many applications and relevance on many levels:
Here’s one easier, close-to-home example. Some Jews thrive in circumstances that are conducive for Jewish life. They do best with all the Jewish amenities, from synagogues to kosher restaurants, round the clock Torah classes or religious softball leagues. They do Jewish best when surrounded by like-minded Jews, with similar observance levels. They need that Cloud of Glory and set up and operative Mishkan.
But the climax of Shemot is when we continue the journey and mission, and maintain and deepen the connection even in circumstances and situations when we may have little or none of that. Of course, its best to be in ideal circumstances, but that’s not always the case, and that’s where our inner connection and core comes to the fore. That’s the ultimate connection.
Praying and hoping for the best in Ukraine, and for the displaced and dismantled communities there, and all people affected by this terrible tragic crisis. May their Mishkan be rebuilt, and may the ultimate Mishkan be rebuilt, speedily in our days, with much joy and happiness.